Stacey Spell

What Cleveland can gain from New Haven’s fight against gangs: Pathways to Peace

By John Caniglia, The Plain Dealer
on June 06, 2016 at 7:45 AM, updated June 06, 2016 at 7:54 AM

New Haven, Conn. — The retired cop, now a church deacon, goes deep into this city’s bleakest neighborhoods, seeking to save not just the souls of New Haven’s most dangerous gang members, but also their lives.

Stacy Spell spreads his message to a troubled flock. Put your guns down. Stop the violence. End the suffering. If you want out, there are options.

“We need our young men to grow old with us, to become fathers and grandfathers,” he said as he walked to a meeting in late February. He grabbed his graying beard and twisted it.

“We need to see this,” he said, holding the strands. “We need to see their gray hair. We need to see them when they get old. We need them around.”

Spell and a strong supporting cast lead Project Longevity, an initiative in New Haven that research says has sharply reduced gang shootings, from eight a month to three. It offers lessons — in leadership, coordination and resources — for Cleveland and other cities desperate to stop killings by young men and teenagers.

The Plain Dealer, with the help of a grant from the Solutions Journalism Network, explored New Haven’s program because it has been thoroughly researched and because it follows a road map that several cities have used with success.

Sociologists call it focused deterrence, meaning authorities target the tiny subset of the population that typically commits the majority of violent crime in a city.

The formula in New Haven, a city of about 130,000, is simple. Since 2012, when Project Longevity was founded, leaders have huddled with teenagers and young men who have been on probation or parole for, in many cases, violent crimes. Law enforcement officials tell them that violence will not be tolerated.

If they refuse to heed the warnings and shoot someone, then police and federal agents will work to take down the entire gang, not just the shooter.

But if the gang members put down their guns, social service agencies will offer as much help as possible, from education to job training to help in filing for custody of their children.

City homicides fell from 34 in 2011 to 15 last year. Complaints of shootings dropped from 426 complaints in 2011 to 90 last year.

Spell retired in 2006, giving up his badge, but never his love of the city. Today, he is a deacon at Pitts Chapel Unified Free Will Baptist Church in New Haven.

For years, he has worked with at-risk young men and teenagers, talking and counseling them, often over a chessboard.

The New Haven Independent, an online newspaper, reported that Spell once brought out chessboards to a street where several shootings had taken place. Spell tried game by game to reclaim the neighborhood.

It is impossible to tell if the move reduced crime, but it offered a glimpse into Spell’s commitment to the area.

When chess grandmaster Susan Polgar learned of Spell’s push to mentor through chess, she was so impressed that she shipped him seven boards.

“Chess has a way of breaking down barriers,” Spell told The Plain Dealer. “It opens the lines of communication.”

Full story here.



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